NOTE: post is currently in progress, i’m too tired to fix it properly before i publish the updates
I’ll add more to this list as I find and play them. Last updated 23rd February 2015.
Usually you’ll want to (or it’s only possible to) emulate a game instead of buying a physical cartridge. Emulation means you use software to play the game on another gaming device, for example playing a gameboy game on a 3DS, or a PS2 game on a computer. Emulation software is entirely free, and runs on “ROMs” (digital versions of the info that’s on a game cartridge), which you can download online (techically, having a ROM copy of a game you already own is not illegal, and emulators aren’t illegal, but downloading ROMs of games you don’t already know is illegal – anyway you can find ROMs easily online.) If you have a device like a 3DS, you can buy a “flashcart” (flashcartridge) which is basically just a fake game cartridge that’s actually a USB, and you can load the emulation software etc onto it. Anyway!
Games only in hiragana or katakana:
1. (GBC, NDS) All of the Pokemon games (although X and Y can switch in-game between kanji and hiragana by changing the settings). Pokemon Gold, Silver or Crystal are actually the easiest to understand and learn from out of all the games (Red/Blue/Green have stilted text with not enough context, and the later games have way too much text and aren’t as easy to play if you can’t understand what they’re saying). Warning, the Mystery Dungeon games have really tiny text that’s hard to read.
2. (DS) こどものための読み聞かせ えほんであそぼう – A series of “games” which are actually illustrated children’s books. There’s both English and Japanese stories, and the stories have audio. The stories are just things like that one about the peach boy, and Peter Pan, summarized.
3. (GBC) 不思議のダンジョン 風来のシレン This game is entirely in hiragana and the only real text is when you’re in a town or other “resting place”. It’s easy to figure out how to play even without being able to read anything. You wander around, picking up objects and fighting things, trying to get to deeper and deeper levels of the “dungeon” (ex. get to level 15 to rescue someone) then climb back out:
4. (SMS) Phantasy Star – Written entirely in katakana, except for some sort of cutscenes which use a few basic kanji. I haven’t played it so I dunno how easy it is to understand things in.
5. (SNES, GBA) Mother – also known as “Earthbound”. There’s three games and as far as I know, all of them only use hiragana and katakana.
6. (SNES) Final Fantasy III – has small text and is difficult to understand the “cutscenes”, but the normal “walking around town talking to random people” is much easier to understand.
7. (GBA) Breath of Fire. Text is also relatively big and easy to read.
8. 3×3 Eyes – Only has kanji in the opening scenario-type text, all the dialogues and in-game stuff are just in hiragana/katakana. has huge text!
9. Soul Blader – the hiragana is relatively big and clear to read.
Only basic kanji, without furigana:
1. As far as I know, all the Zelda games for GBC and GBA. “Oracle of Seasons (GBC)” has barely any kanji (as in, extremely few even from the basic kanji) from what little I played, but unfortunately the kanji looks like this:
(GBA) Fushigi no Boushi has more kanji (still probably all in the most common 1.000 though) and is still a bit hard to read because the letters are squished:
2. Dragon Quest I, II – again, the kanji looks like this:
3. Ougen no Taiyou – fairly big font with clear kanji
4. Akazukin Chacha – huge text
Kanji with furigana:
1. (DS) 漢字そのままDS楽引辞典 (Kanji Sonomama Rakubiki Jiten) – Japanese-English dictionary for the NDS, with handwriting recognition and word bookmarking function (to bookmark words you look up and turn them into a vocabulary list later). It also has audio but only for the English words if I remember. I’ve heard many people say it’s even better than the $300 electronic dictionaries, in part because of the handwriting recognition.
2. (DS) 正しい漢字かきとりくん – Handwriting practise game. This teaches you stroke order for hiragana, katakana, and kanji, all the ones that Japanese kids learn in mandatory school, from first grade through at least high school/gymnasium. It also has you copy handwriting instead of font (so you’re not tracing over computer text but instead seeing “good handwriting”). You can see a demonstration of the stroke order of each character (or not), and either directly trace the character on the canvas or go free-hand. Also there’s three different testing modes, so there’s ex. “see the blank in a sentence and write the missing kanji” for if you don’t want to do straight handwriting practise where you just copy the characters.
I put a screen protector (thin layer of clear vinyl) on my bottom screen and use a “thermo pen” (it uses ink that disappears/erases under pressure or heat), so I can use a real pen on the screen and it doesn’t scratch or stain it. Even if I get ink on the screen or on my hands, if you just rub your fingers a little it disappears, unlike normal ink.
3. (3DS) とびだせどうぶつの森 (Animal Crossing: New Leaf). One of the best for learners. It has a huge variety of speech patterns/dialects, yet most of the speech is fairly every-day, and you can still play the game without understanding anything. Every single kanji has furigana over it and it has real-life holidays (ex. setsubun, new year’s, children’s day) that are practised and explained in-game. You can also talk to other players or play minigames with them (it doesn’t have to be only Japanese players) but it’s more likely that you’ll get Japanese ones and you can choose to only meet Japanese ones on the “minigame island”. You can also take screenshots in-game, save them to the memory card on the 3DS, and look up words later. There’s really a lot of “common” vocabulary, such as furniture and fruit names.
5. (DS) 二ノ国 (Ni no Kuni). One of the best for learners. It has furigana over all the kanji and about 2/3rds of the text is voice-acted. There’s also anime cutscenes with voice acting and subtitles. This game is VERY easy to play even if you only know hiragana and katakana, and if you already know a little Japanese the text/dialogue is actually more understandable than it first looks. I’ve been working on making a walkthrough for the game for English players here, and you can also search town or character names and find help there since I’ve been adding in the Japanese ones. Note that the Playstation game is fairly different from the NDS game. Also I at least find the game really fun, it’s one of those “probably meant for kids but is enjoyable for adults too” games. If you’ve played the Layton games, it’s made by the same people and both those games are the same “for kids but also for adults”.
5. (DS) 大神伝～小さき太陽～ (Okamiden). Has furigana over about half the kanji and you will most likely need a walkthrough. The main point to this one is that it’s really fun so you’ll keep playing even if you get stuck or don’t understand. Basically your character is a dog and you’re in a half-mythical half-feudal era of Japan. Well, I find it fun anyway.
If you have a Japanese DS, you can also go into the e-shop and download for free, a game to go along with this. It’s called とうぞくと１０００びきのポケモン and while the “news” frontpage has kanji, the actual game is entirely in hiragana. It’s a very simple fight-and-find-treasure game with pokemon that look like stickers. I think the game told me that if you beat it, you win a masterball in your normal pokemon game. When you walk with the 3DS in your pocket etc, it counts as a pedometer, and every 100 steps or so it gives you a “game coin” which are used in various games like Animal Crossing (in that one, you can buy special in-game items with them) . In this game, you fight using numbers of the same pokemon, and if they’re defeated they disappear, so you use game coins to buy more. Sample of the news page:
important to note, but have yet to test:
(DS) 一度は読んでおきたい日本文学100選 (1oo classic books); based on a screenshot it appears that enabling furigana is possible. based on the english version, it won’t be both a reading-book and audio-book (just text and some background music).
(DS) ゼルダの伝説： 夢幻の砂時計 (legend of zelda: the phantom hourglass), supposedly has kanji but tapping on them shows the furigana
Worse DS/3DS games (or, for more advanced people):
1. ブレイブリーデフォルト フォーザ・シークウェル (Bravely Default: For The Sequel). This is a free download from the Japanese e-shop – this is a fantastic game. The art is cute, it’s a true RPG (set in Europe, wanderers who you talk to in order to save…), you don’t really have to understand what they’re saying in order to play, etc. But it has kanji with no furigana. If you buy the “upgraded” version, which costs 2.000 yen as of August 2014, you unlock voice acting during event scenes, “CG mode”, more storyline/scenarios, and it looks like something that connects it to the first game. But the voice acting is only during event scenes, the normal talking to NPCs and so on doesn’t have voice acting even in the paid version.
2. クロノ・トリガー (Chrono Trigger). This isn’t good for learning Japanese because there’s no voice acting, the font is tiny, most of the time you have to understand what they’re saying in order to advance the plot, there’s kanji with no furigana, and the whole game is full of non-normal conversation topics… but you can go into the menu of the game and switch between English or Japanese at any time (as long as you have the Japanese version of the game). So you can have two save files, play a bit in English then play the same bit in Japanese.
3. (DS) Dating simulation or visual novel games. These are not very good for beginners since there’s way too much narration you can’t make sense of, usually no furigana and you don’t have many context clues that are on-screen and not text, but would be great for improving your Japanese if you’re already more intermediate level. The point is to get ones that have a lot of reaction options, the characters on-screen have varying facial expressions, and it has full or almost full voice acting. Of these, the ones that I’ve played (there’s quite a few in the Japanese e-shop but I can’t spend money on random games right now so I can’t test any for you):
ラブプラス (Love Plus) – almost full voice acting and expressive (3D) characters. gets very repetitive though.
涼宮ハルヒの直列 (Haruhi Suzumiya) – almost full voice acting (of what I played, anyway) but less expressive characters.
2. (SNES) 天地創造 (Terranigma). This game is boring in the very beginning but slowly gets more and more interesting and is REALLY interesting by the end. It gets so interesting that you won’t care if you can’t understand what they’re saying (trust me, I played it in Swedish when I was a super beginner at Swedish). I think there are kanji in it. Likewise there’s almost no text in the beginning and it gets to be more and more by the end. It’s also a very, very long game. There’s a couple points where you’ll likely be stuck even if you do understand it all, so you’ll probably need a walkthrough no matter what. But the game is officially in English, German, French, Spanish, and unofficially it’s been fan-translated to quite a few languages like Swedish so you can play it once (or alongside) in a language you know if you want. Anyway, just use an emulator and play it on the computer. I don’t want to say what it’s about because it will ruin some of the magic, but let’s just say a barren land full of darkness turns into a beautiful world.
Online (free) Games:
These aren’t the best for learning, but they’re free and for people who don’t have videogame consoles and don’t want to emulate.
1. There are a few of these on Facebook but they tend to either close down or remove languages for some reason. “Chefville” and “Farmville 2” were the best for playing in another language. This is because the translations were better (Cafeland for example can be played in other languages too but the translations are really weird), the games themselves are a bit more interesting (versus something like ugly slot machines), and basically everything is done in pictures and only very little needs to be read. You can also switch the game and play it in German, Swedish, English, even Danish etc. first to help you figure out how it works.
2. Puella Magi Madoka Magica online game which has an English Wiki, complete with instructions on how to register for the game and item explanations. You’ll need to use a proxy on your internet browser when you play and say you’re in Japan because otherwise it’ll never finish loading. In this game you move about a board by rolling dice, (automatically) fight monsters and stuff, and collect cards that raise your stats and give you new clothes and items. There’s text dialogue that you can follow but I can’t read it and skip it all. Basically it’s really easy to play without knowing any Japanese and if you happen to get curious about words you can look them up, but it’s not actually serious or plot-based so it also doesn’t matter if you have no clue what’s going on.
3. Game with voice acting and written dialogue, although the music drowns it out a little and I never got past the beginning so I can’t say how it is. You have to log into your Niconico account in order to play and it’s possible you have to use a proxy saying you’re in Japan. https://app.nicovideo.jp/watch/ap129
4. Adult (anime) online dating sim games, aka H (ecchi) games or whatever. Have to use a proxy. I haven’t tried playing them so I don’t know how they are. https://www.dmm.co.jp/netgame/
5. 90’s computer dating sims (from Japan) which you can now play in the web browser and that have (often) been translated to different languages, like English and German. Some have voice acting, but usually not full even if so (meaning all you get is some gasps or greetings on occasion). But more importantly you can play the game in English and Japanese at the same time in different browser windows, to understand what they’re saying. https://tss.asenheim.org/